American college football’s rushing leader — and a focal point in this year’s Heisman Trophy conversation — is a Canadian.
Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard, a 20-year-old native of Sherwood Park, Alta., has rushed for 1,094 yards with 13 touchdowns in just six games this season. He’s the second-fastest player in school history to reach the 1,000-yard plateau — the legendary Barry Sanders did it in five during his 1988 Heisman Trophy-winning season when he rushed for an NCAA-record 2,850 yards with 42 TDs as a junior.
The six-foot-one, 207-pound Hubbard is in his first full season as a starter with the Cowboys (4-2). A 296-yard rushing performance in a 26-13 win over Kansas State on Sept. 28 only solidified his presence in the this year’s Heisman Trophy race but the modest Canadian isn’t overwhelmed by all of the attention.
"We talk about embracing your role a lot so this year I knew I had to step up a lot and I knew I could do a lot to help the team," Hubbard said during a conference call Thursday. "I just try my best every game. Whatever happens, happens.
"That (Heisman Trophy hype) is all cool and I’m blessed to be even recognized for that. I try not to focus too much of that stuff. Too much of that can hurt you so I just focus on my team and winning games."
But make no mistake, Hubbard is on quite a roll. Of the last four running backs to win the Heisman Trophy — Ricky Williams, a former Toronto Argonaut, in 1998, Ron Dayne in 1999, Mark Ingram in 2009 and Derrick Henry in 2015. Hubbard’s rushing total ranks second only to Williams (1,227) and he’s on pace for a Big 12 record of 2,188 yards.
Heady stuff considering Hubbard ran for 740 yards (six-yard average) with seven TDs as a redshirt freshman in 2018.
It’s an uphill battle for Hubbard to win the Heisman. Quarterbacks Tua Tagovailoa of Alabama, Jalen Hurts of Oklahoma and Joe Burrow of Louisiana State are considered favourites to win the award for top player in the U.S. college ranks.
However, Hubbard is in the conversation — and he readily accepts shouldering the weight of expectation from football fans in his home country.
"I always feel like Canada is the greatest country in the world," he said. "If I’m able to make (Canadians) proud and wear that Canadian flag strong and show Canadians can do great things on the football field or really in any aspect, I feel like I’m definitely riding for our country."
Sanders skipped his senior season to enter the NFL draft and was taken third overall by Detroit in 1989. Sanders was a 10-time Pro Bowl selection and eight-time all-NFL and Pro Bowl player over 10 seasons before retiring and being inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 2004.
A big question now concerns Hubbard’s future. If he cracks the 2,000-yard plateau, will he return to Oklahoma State in 2020 or head to the NFL?
"To be honest, I don’t really know what’s going to happen after this year," he said. "I’m just focusing on winning games and then after that I’ll figure out what I’m going to do."
Hubbard’s quick emergence has surprised many football pundits, but not Shane Richards. The Argonauts’ rookie offensive lineman predicted during training camp this summer that Hubbard would have a breakout 2019 campaign.
Richards had inside information. He played collegiately at Oklahoma State before being selected first overall by Toronto in this year’s CFL draft.
"Anyone that knows Chuba, there was never going to be a surprise," Richards said. "His work ethic is crazy and you know speed kills right, and he’s got a lot of that.
"The thing about Chuba is his vision and once he hits that C gap, he’s gone. Nobody was going to catch him."
That’s not a surprise considering Hubbard was also a terrific sprinter in track before becoming a full-time football player.
Richards, for one, doesn’t believe Hubbard will leave school early for the 2020 NFL draft.
"That’s up to him but I feel like he wants to leave a legacy," Richards said. "I think he wants to be remembered for more than just one crazy year.
"At the end of the day, and I’ve always felt this, the tape doesn’t lie and stats don’t lie."
Hubbard said just because he’s playing football now doesn’t mean he’s closed the door on track and field.
"I’m not going to say my track career is over, it’s still there," he said. "We’ll see what happens next year.
"Obviously I’m happy with where I’m at right now … but I’m not going to say I’m completely done with track. I love both the sports."
Cowboys head coach Mike Gundy said Hubbard is definitely capable of winning the Heisman.
"You ever go to horse races and bet on a horse and he’s winning and it’s only halfway and you hear people yell, ‘Stop the race, stop the race right now I win,"’ Gundy said. "Well, if you stop the race right now he’s in good shape but we’ve got a long way to go.
"He’s got to stay hungry, he’s got to stay humble, got to continue to work hard. So if he starts to read his press, think he’s pretty good (and) back off in practice he won’t be as good. I don’t think he’ll do that and if he stays strong, he stays humble he’ll do just fine."
But Hubbard has no problem staying grounded.
"Since I was young, they (Hubbard’s parents) always told me to be humble," he said. "That’s one big thing they hold me to and I try to hold myself to that.
"Just be humble no matter what. I’m just like everybody else, I just play football, that’s the only difference."
Oklahoma State is on a bye this week, which is good news for Hubbard, who has had 128 carries his last four games.
"This is what we work for all year," he said. "No matter what my role is, with five carries or 40, I’m going to try to do my best with it.
"My body is holding up good. Obviously this bye week feels great, but I’m ready to go."
Hubbard isn’t losing any sleep about how he’ll maintain the pace he’s set for himself.
"I just go play football," he said. "No matter what defences are doing to try to stop you, you just try to do your best and try to overcome that.
"I’m just looking forward to each and every game, I’m not really worried about keeping up with stats or anything like that."